Friday, October 24, 2008

Rapid Diversification - In Journals

A while back, I was asked to join an editorial board for a new open-access journal called "Theoretical Biology Insights," published by Libertas Academica. I think open access is great, and I am familiar with another LA journal, Evolutionary Bioinformatics, that has published some good things. I responded enthusiastically, and was added to the slate. I haven't yet been involved with the journal in any other way, but it is really just starting out.

Perusing the first two papers of this journal, I couldn't help but notice that one of them seems to be about how the complete state of all human brains might somehow be encoded in the Earth's magnetic field. (image 'borrowed' from here). Now, I may be misinterpreting this paper - in fact, I probably am. But the correct interpretation of this paper has to be equally strange, even if strange in a different way. Here, I must confess that I'm not a (psychologist? physicist? geoneurobiologist?)... well I don't feel really qualified to judge this paper.

The point of this post is mainly to wonder what everyone thinks the role of journals like this one or others from LA will be. There are also the many new OA journals from Bentham Science Publishers (you might have gotten an email or two from them), one of which is about evolution. These may be a different type of thing from the LA journals, but I'm finding it difficult or impossible to really predict where all of this is going.

To me, perhaps the new journal with the best potential is PLoS ONE, which takes papers and then hopes that peer review will be a continuing process; anyone can comment on the papers on the website. However, in my experience (n=1), people don't comment.

I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on this topic, especially people who have experience with these new journals. Send your electromagnetic waves my way.

Persinger, M. A. 2008. On the possible representation of the electromagnetic equivalents of all human memory within the Earth's magnetic field: implications for theoretical biology. Theoretical Biology Insights 1:3-11.


Stevan Harnad said...


It seems every benign and progressive movement can be exploited and abused. You have just run into one of the abusers of the Open Access movement. There are others too. Her are some reports on them:

       "Dove Medical Press and Libertas Academica: Spammer of the Month"

       "Help sought on OA publisher Scientific Journals International"

       "Suber/Harnad statement in support of the investigative work of Richard Poynder"

       "The Dot-Gold Rush for Open Access"

At the root of this are three things:

(1) OA Publishing ("Gold OA") is just one of the roads to OA: it is not the only way, nor the fastest way. Yet many wrongly think that OA means Gold OA:

       "OA Publishing is OA, but OA is Not OA Publishing"

(2) The fastest and surest way to universal OA is for authors to keep publishing in the existing peer-reviewed journals but to self-archiving their peer-reviewed, accepted final drafts in their institutional OA repositories ("Green OA"):

       BOAI Self-Archiving FAQ

(3) Gold OA is unnecessary and premature today. Journals may eventually be forced by universal Green OA to convert to Gold OA, but for now, Gold OA fees are merely an unnecessary deterrent, poached from already scarce research funds. If and when universal Green OA causes subscription collapse, then Gold OA fees can be paid for out of the subscription savings. Right now, some start-up fleets of dot-gold journals are merely exploiting the yearning for OA and the confusion about what OA is and how to provide it, by selling pseudo-peer-review for pseudo-journals.

       "The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition"

Stevan Harnad
American Scientist Open Access Forum

Jeremy Brown said...

I and a grad student friend here at Texas have been asked to review papers for LA journals and both of the articles, for different journals, were basically gibberish. Based on these experiences, I'm not sure I really trust anything they publish. There seems to be no editorial screening.

Glor said...

Luke - Looks like you're going to be an adviser to this cuckoo-head journal for the rest of your life! Maybe you should try to make the most of it? I've been thinking of doing a study on whether fortune cookies are accurate predictors of the future - do you think your journal would be interested? (I once got a fortune cookie that said I was about to meet a new friend and then, lo and behold, I did meet a new friend just a few weeks later.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Rich. I have transferred your comments to the local magnetic field around my house, where they will be stored indefinitely.

Anonymous said...


I'm in a similar situation; I have published a paper in Evolutionary Bioinformatics, and was pretty satisfied. I had a look at Theoretical Biology Insights, and was extremely surprised by the title, the abstract, and the content of this "magnetic field" paper. I had to think about this for a few days before sending an email to Kayvan Najarian, the editor in chief of this journal. Two days after, the paper disappeared from the web site, without any explanation. See here: , the only indication is the gap in the page numbering.

I really wonder who are these guys and what is their aim. I can understand that, after 15 years of editing a big journal, the editor in chief may make some mistakes and let the wrong paper go through (like the "God in Mitochondria" paper in Proteomics last year). But what about the evry first article in a new journal? How can this happen?

I really find the Open Access journals interesting, and I would accept to publish in lower impact factor journals to get this Open Access (in particular, to avoid filling the copyright transfer form). The business model is much cleaner as well, the company is paid to do the job (organizing peer-review, keeping the web site, advertising (almost spamming), editing the paper in a proper pdf, etc), and once the paper is published, the deal is over.

However, the weakness in the system seems to be that the firm gets money only if the paper is accepted. Shallow peer-review seems to be a nice way to make money, and reviewers are encouraged to do so (extremely short deadline --1 week!--, requirement of a short comment, etc).

I have chosen LA press once because I did not like at all the "PLoS One" philosophy, and I was expecting LA to follow a more classical quality control process. Too bad, I think it's not the case.

Anyway, the most frightening part is perhaps that they removed the paper without any comment nor answer. Do they try to hide this editorial mistake? It seems that Theoretical Biology Insights is dead before being born...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that insightful comment, Arnaud. I am disturbed by the removal of this paper as well.

Anonymous said...

Hi everybody,

I must say I am rather embarrassed with this LA Press case (and more generally with the OA issue). As many of you, I received almost every week "invitations" by Bentham, LA Press and others to publish (and, often, to pay for that at the same time)… So it was the case almost one year from now when I received the invitation to join Theoretical Biology Insights editorial board, which, as Luke, I accepted enthusiastically, considering doing some editing job in a field I like could be interesting. After that, I went further into the process by proposing a paper to this journal (with the explicit condition that I would not have to pay anything for the publication of this paper; of course, the editor agreed to allocate a waiver). So, as you might have realised, I am indeed the first author of what was before the 2d paper published in Theoretical Biology Insights, but what is now the only paper to stay online…

Well, what to say? Yes, as all of you, I was indeed quite puzzled with the paper about brain waves and earth magnetic field. By the way, it is still possible (for how long?) to have access to this paper (it seems it's still hidden somewhere on LA Press server): The author seems however quite known in the field (, but, as Luke, I feel totally incompetent to judge for this work. Anyway, this is not the issue here; the issue is more to understand why an accepted paper is being retracted without any comments some month after. What kind of journal is this?

Regarding my "from molecules to organisms" paper, I thank you not to have been to fierce with it… Indeed, it was just intended to be a kind of "tribune" paper I decided to publish with a couple of fellows after a meeting, and I humbly hoped it might be of some interest for the Systems biology and related communities. I must say I'm quite disappointed with the way things have gone with this journal. Anyway, the good thing is I still hold the copyright…



Libertas Academica said...


I am the Publisher and Managing Director of Libertas Academica. In response to Arnaud Le Rouzic's comment, the publication of this paper was a cause of considerable embarrassment for us, and all I can offer is my apologies and the following explanation.

It occurred through a database error caused by a server upgrade. When the problem was recognised the paper was promply removed and the database was repaired. Several safeguards were put in place to prevent this recurring.

Unfortunately at present we don't have a means to make a statement on the removal of a paper on the journal's home page but this is being addressed in pending website design changes.

With respect to article processing fees and their potential to compromise editorial standards, this is an argument many of us are familiar with and superfically it has some merit. However, I think this blog entry actually illustrates why the argument is not sustainable. A publisher who compromises on editorial standards will quickly find himself unable to attract submissions, and rightly so.

LA's peer review standards are carefully balanced between ensuring a reasonably prompt submission processing turn-around time and allowing reviewers enough time to compose thoughtful and comprehensive reports. I read almost all the peer review reports we send and I'm confident that we are achieving very good review quality standards. Completed review reports usually run to between one to two plain text A4 pages and occasionally run up to around six or seven. Credible peer review is something I take very seriously because it's the basis of our credibility.

In my opinion OA publishers in general, and particularly newer ones such as LA, must always remember that many authors are still to be convinced of the merits of OA. LA isn't resting on its laurels and ensuring that what we offer is aligned with the needs of readers, authors and editorial boards is an on-going objective.

Tom Hill

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,

Thanks for posting that explanation, it is appreciated.


Anonymous said...

An interview with Tom Hill is available here:

Arnaud Le Rouzic said...

(I have just noticed Tom Hill's answer, sorry for the delay).

I acknowledge Tom's answer, which evidences that he's paying attention to what's being said on LA press on the web. I am also convinced that "the paper was a cause of considerable embarrassment for [LA press]".

However, I think I have to answer on two points. The first one is rather minor, and probably deals with a misunderstanding on what's the point of peer-review. 1) It's hard for me to believe that you receive that long peer-review reports, which look far more detailed than the experts' comments obtained in high-rank journals. Especially considering that the review invitation emails from LA press state "Undertaking a review of the paper would only involve the writing of a BRIEF review of the paper" (emphasis mine), which looks extremely clear. 2) Even if one admits that your reviewers do not respect the instructions so that you receive long, detailed and high-quality reviews, it does not say anything about the rejection rate of the papers that were poorly evaluated. No journal want to communicate about the rejection rates, so I know we cannot hope any evidence that LA press journals actually reject papers based on scientific grounds (and not only 'poor English' kind of things, that can be done for economical reasons).

My second point is probably much more important. Since I did not keep any copy of this paper by M. Persinger, I had to ask around and fortunately I managed to get the pdf (that has completely disappeared from LA press web site). And it's exactly as I remembered: this pdf is not a preprint manuscript that could have been published by mistake, it's a fully-edited paper, handled by the staff of LA press and formated according to the style of the journal. One can thus make two hypotheses: either this is a very, very, very unlikely succession of mistakes at LA press, involving that rejected papers can be edited by mistake and then published on the web site (this would explain why the publishing cost is so high, it's probably terribly expensive to edit rejected papers!), unnoticed for several weeks (!) while being the only paper published by this journal at that day (!!); either Tom Hill deliberately lies.

As additional input, perhaps it is worth noticing that 6 months after the "mistake", no announcement has been made on the web site: the paper has been withdrawn "magically" without any official explanation, nor comment, no reasons, nothing.

As Tom Hill said, "A publisher who compromises on editorial standards will quickly find himself unable to attract submissions". I think this is rather wrong actually, since there is always a part of gullible, young, naive or unsuccessful scientists who may find some interest in sending their manuscripts to low-standard journals. Unfortunately, these journals can also publish good-quality papers, and it would be completely unfair to tag all articles as "rubbish" and disregard them when evaluating CVs.

Finally, we should not prosecute "Open access journals" in general. Some of them, like PLoS or the BMC series, managed to get pretty high standards and good reputation. As far as I know, none of these journals have ever had problems like this, they have never been accused of spamming or of asking anyone to be on the editorial board of their journals. Since they have not made such mistakes, they do not have neither to scan the web for potential "bad reputation" discussions and try to justify their mistakes with unlikely, blur and probably dishonest explanations. Competition between OA journals has at least one positive side though: you can choose to submit your papers to the ones who not only claim that they have good practices, but who can also evidence that this is the case.

Christophe Lavelle said...

Hye Arnaud and the others commenting on this post,

Sorry to say that, obviously, your assumption was right: Tom Hill deliberately lied, since you may have noticed that the now famous "on the possible blablabla" paper is just back on the official website (check at, as if nothing ever happened. Magic.

So yes, this journal is definitely dead, and I was definitely naive to publish one of my papers in it. Fortunatelly, I also published another paper in PLoS ONE a few month after, so this has reconciled me with OA journals (as you said, Arnaud, they are not all equal, and some of them are even really good journals).

Best regards.